80s TEEN NOVEL : "Probably Still Nick Swansen"

Probably Still Nick Swansen by Virginia Euwer Wolff
     One of my English teacher friends asked if I wanted about three bins full of old books, and I said yes. There's no library funding, so I'm big on donations. Whatever we can't use for our library I take to a used book store to trade in for store credit, which I use to get things we CAN use.
     As I was going through all the old books, I found this little paperback gem from 1988. The cover illustration struck me as pathetic, along with the tagline, "What's wrong with being Nick Swansen?"
     If you have to ask...
     Then I flipped it over and read the synopsis on the back:

Nick has a problem. No, problems.
Nick is 16. He is still trying to learn how to drive. He's an expert on some things, not so good at others. He's haunted by the memory of his sister who drowned nine years ago. Nick is a "Special Ed" kid.

He's been teased about it. But that doesn't stop him from asking Shana, a former special ed classmate, to the Prom. That, Nick thinks, will be really special.

But things don't always go the way you plan.

Suddenly Nick wishes he was anybody but who he is... anybody but Nick Swansen.

     Oh, dear. Poor Nick Swansen in his awkward tuxedo, waiting for his "special" date. And what's up with that seemingly random brick of tragedy tossed in, about Nick's dead drowned sister? Like Nick's struggles aren't enough "teen issues" for one book without a haunting accidental death from the past? Virginia Euwer Wolff, you are one hard and unflinching writer.
     There's even a nice little insulting "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book, which reads:

This book contains some incorrect grammar and punctuation in order to tell Nick Swansen's story in language that is consistent with his.

     Wow, Virginia Euwer Wolff, I'm not sure who's more insulted by that, poor Nick Swansen, or the reader.


          I just finished reading Robert J. Sawyer’s Flashforward, which served as “inspiration” for the television series.  I love the series, and I really enjoyed the book, but the differences between the two are even more pronounced than is usually the case when books are made into film.  The book is much less about the mystery of what caused the blackout and visions, and more about the psychological effects and ramifications, and intellectual extrapolation on what it all means.  Then at the end it gets pretty cosmic and shoots off WAY into the far-distant future.  Fascinating.
          But the one page I dog-eared (I’m not proud of it!  I’m sorry!) so I’d be able to find it later was a scene set in the author’s vision of what book stores would be like ten years into the future.  But he wrote it in 1999, so his future was actually last year!
          It’s interesting, so I shall provide the passage here:
I wish this edition's cover didn't so heavily
reflect the TV series. But I'm just being picky.

(Following excerpt from Flashforward, by Robert J. Sawyer, copyright 1999)

Day Eight: Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jake and Carly Tompkins could have met at TRIUMF, but they decided not to.  Instead, they met at the Chapters superstore in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.  This one still devoted about half its space to actual pre-printed books that were for sale: guaranteed bestsellers by Stephen King, John Grisham, and Coyote Rolf.  But the rest of the facility was taken up by individual display copies of titles that could be printed on demand.  It took only fifteen minutes to produce a single copy of any book, either in mass-market paperback or as an octavo hardcover.  Large-print editions could be had, as well, and computer-translated editions in any one of twenty-four languages could be produced in only an additional few minutes.  And, of course, no title was ever out of stock.
          In a brilliant bit of preadaptive evolution, book superstores had been building coffee shops into their facilities for twenty years now—giving people the perfect place to spend some pleasant time while their custom books were printed.  Jake got to Chapters early, entered the attached Starbucks, ordered himself a tall decaffeinated Sumatra, and found a seat.


          In the Santa Ana Public Library Children's Room way back in the sepia-toned 1990s, I discovered an old copy of Rosemary's Witch by Ann Turner, published in 1991.
          I was instantly entranced by the lyrical, melancholy poetry of this small yet powerful novel.  It's really beautifully written. Turner portrays the witch, Mathilda, with a keen sense of aching loneliness.  Almost every line is graceful. For example, the first few lines of the book:

In the smoky blue-green hills of summer, where the phoebe calls and hawks sail lazily overhead, is a town called Woodhaven.  That is where it began.
   It was a town like a hat someone had thrown away for being too plain, for not having bird wings on it or bobbing strawberries.

          Then in the following chapter, when we're introduced to the witch:

She found the cottage one day as she flew low over her woods.  Mathilda almost missed it, the black, rotting roof hidden by two pines.  She settled slowly to earth and walked in.
   "Home."  The word squeezed out.  The edges of her mouth flaked.  "Home," she creaked.  Not a cave.  Not a dark, wet hole in a rock.  She sighed.

          Later, Mathilda finds an old ragged doll by the stream, under a rock.  It's faceless, and the stuffing is mostly gone.  Mathilda cradles it, cleans it, and stuffs it full of moss and pine needles.

   "Doll."  Her mouth hurt.  "Who left you-- there?"  Abandoned.  Left alone.  Cold winds and cold rain on the doll's face.  Dogs nosing her.  A cold rock her roof.

          How could I not love this book?!  It sent chills through me, and I never forgot it.  Flipping through it now, I even think it influenced my own writing.  At least it made me want to TRY to write something that nuanced and evocative.
          The copy I read was hardback, and had a moody cover that I wish I could remember better.  I think it had a ragged, faceless doll, and maybe the hazy form of a withered old woman behind a dirty window. I KNOW it was better than the picture on the stupid paperback, which I recently picked up for $1 in a used book store.
          I had brought book donations in for credit, which is the sad way we get most of my library's "new" books now.  I was so excited to find this subtle diamond of a book that I bought it even though the paperback cover looks like this:
Totally looks like The Babysitter's Club Halloween Special #368
          This craptastic Scholastic cover in NO WAY reflects what this book is really like.  It pains me.  I even searched online for a picture of the old hardback cover illustration, just to make myself feel better, but couldn't find it anywhere.  Maybe it's not even as cool as I remember, but it's certainly better than the one above.
          I plan to really push this book now that it's ready for checkout.  I will keep displaying it, and talking it up to the kids I think will appreciate it. 
          Especially during October.